By Jane Morse
"The global level of press freedom has fallen to its lowest level in a decade," says Karin Karlekar.
Karlekar is the project director for the annual "Freedom of the Press" report produced since 1980 by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that conducts research on democracy, political freedom and human rights. This year's report, covering 2013, assesses the state of press freedom for all types of media in 197 countries and territories.
At a May 1 press briefing at the State Department's Foreign Press Center in Washington, Karlekar said the share of the world's population that lives in countries with a free press remained at 14 percent, while the vast majority live in partly free or not free media environments.
Karlekar identified four major trends driving the decline in press freedom in 2013:
The tendency of governments caught in upheavals to attack the messengers of bad news. "In many countries last year there were unprecedented civic protest demonstrations, and journalists' ability to cover these types of breaking news events was threatened," Karlekar said. "In some cases they were caught up in protests that turned violent, while in others they were targeted specifically for being journalists by governments who did not want these types of stories to be covered."
Increased targeting of foreign media. In those countries with repressive governments where foreign media have successfully gotten information out to global audiences, authorities have attempted to expel reporters or have threatened to withhold visa extensions, Karlekar said. Other foreign journalists have been harassed, detained or even jailed, she said.
Restrictions on new media. "As new and social media become more important conduits for news and information, we've seen multipronged efforts to control online speech," Karlekar said. Restrictive governments have harassed bloggers and used legal penalties to persecute online speech.
Control of news content via ownership. "We saw that in a number of countries there were ownership changes of the media in key outlets, and that new owners, particularly ones who had close connections to the government or the ruling party in the country, then would alter the editorial lens of the outlet, make it less independent, and in some cases dismiss outspoken staff," Karlekar said.
"Freedom of expression and a free press are universal human rights," said Doug Frantz, the U.S. Department of State's assistant secretary for public affairs, who also spoke at the Foreign Press Center briefing.
"Democracy and liberty depend on a free press," Frantz said. "The way a government responds to criticism is what holds governments accountable. [The U.S. government] may not always like what's written or spoken about us. We may not always agree with it. But we understand in this country the ultimate value of freedom of the press."
"Shutting down opposing views, whether by jailing journalists or trying to block social media sites, or worse, is not a demonstration of a government's strength; it's a symptom of a government's weakness," Frantz said.
Read more at the Freedom House website.